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How to Fly with Babies and Toddlers

May 15, 2019

The airport can be an intimidating place, and the thought of being locked in anywhere with your child for any length of time can be downright terrifying. But, flying with babies and toddlers can be enjoyable and can open the world to your family.

This guide will cover everything from when to book your flight, how to pack, and navigating the security line.

Booking Your Flight

Once a location has been picked, the first big decision of any trip is often booking your flight. When is the best time of day to fly with babies and toddlers?

An approach that has worked well for our children is booking a flight during times they usually sleep. Both our children still nap in the afternoon, so an early afternoon flight has a high napping success rate. In order to promote nap time, we also bring their sleeping blanket and lovie on the plane, then read a story and “tuck them in.”

For an evening or overnight flight, we change our children into their pajamas before boarding the plane. Sometimes it feels a little early to put pajamas on at 5:30 or 6 pm, but this way they are ready to settle in for bed when the lights turn off mid-flight.

A caveat: Nothing with children ever has a 100% success rate. We have booked departing and returning flights for the exact same time of day and had two completely different experiences. However, planning around naptime/bedtime can set you up for a successful plane ride.

Packing

Air travel is expensive, and the cost increases exponentially once you start adding on the extra seats and extra bags required to fly with babies and toddlers. Plus, more gear=more gear to haul through an airport.

One cost-effective solution our family has utilized is to only check one bag. That’s right, we pack four people in one suitcase and keep it all under 50 pounds. Every piece of clothing is carefully chosen and can usually serve multiple outfits, the weight of every item scrutinized, and we plan to do laundry while traveling.

Even if you don’t pack as light as we do, careful planning and packing your bags can help smooth out your trip with little ones. Here are a few things to consider:

Have an easily accessible set of spare clothes.

Packing a spare outfit for your little one in case of a diaper blowout is a often discussed topic in parenting 101. But, packing a spare outfit for yourself often gets overlooked.

Especially if you are wearing your child through the airport or on the plane, having a spare outfit (at least shirt) is a good idea. Nobody wants to be me, the person trying to blot puke off from my shirt in the bathroom before boarding a flight.

The spare set of clothes can come in handy even without a puking/pooping incident. When Mr. O was 18 months old, we were preparing for an international flight to Oslo, Norway and we packed a spare set of “just in case he poops” clothes for each of us in our carry on bag. This spare set quickly became the only extra clothes we had for three days because the airline lost our luggage.

Organize items based on when you will need them

My husband will tell you I’m terrible at this one. Naturally, heavy/bulky items will end up at the bottom of my carry on bag (like my breast pump, frozen milk, or food pouches) but those are the same items I need to pull out first for TSA screening.

The same concepts apply once you are on the plane. For example, babies equalize their ears during take-off and landing by sucking, so feeding or using a pacifier is helpful during these times. Pack your nursing cover/bottle/pacifier in the bag under your seat instead of in the overhead bin so it’s within easy reach when you need it most.

Plan accordingly and try to pack so you can easily get what you will need most.

Check as much as possible

Remember when I said we keep our luggage under 50 pounds? We usually keep it around 47 pounds in order to leave a little extra room for items we needed to get to the airport but don’t need in the airport (like jackets).

Jackets/hats/mittens get tossed in the suitcase at the ticket counter. This decreases the amount of stuff we carry through the airport, thus limiting the amount of stuff we have to lose in the airport/accidentally leave on the plane.

Baby Carriers vs Stroller

Should I bring my baby carrier or stroller when I fly with my baby?

This is a common question I see in parenting Facebook groups and one I’ve been asked many times by friends. There is not a single “correct” answer and it can change depending on your travel destination or travel habits. Here are a couple things I consider when making this decision:

Destination

Is this destination stroller friendly? The cobblestone streets of European cities are not known to be friendly to the tires of a stroller. Neither are the rocky hiking trails of some national parks. And some cities are perfect for walking with many paved trails. I consider where we will be spending the majority of our time and how we’d use a stroller there when deciding if we are bringing the stroller.

Know Your Child

Does my child like the stroller? Is my child used to the baby carrier at home? Where are they most likely to nap?

You know your child best and can factor their preferences in your decision.

Note: If your baby is very young and you haven’t had a chance to try out all your cool baby things yet, consider getting some “practice” in at home before the trip. It can be very stressful for mom and baby if the first time you try on the baby carrier is right before you board an airplane. If you’d like to wear baby on the plane (which I highly recommend), spend some time wearing baby around the house first so both of you can get used to loading/unloading and how the carrier feels.

My Approach

I am a big fan of baby wearing through the airport and on the airplane. For me, life is easier when baby attached to me and my hands free, so the baby carrier is a must.

Our destination is the largest factor in the decision to bring the stroller or leave it at home. If we are traveling somewhere we plan to do a lot of walking, we typically bring the stroller. However, we did not take a stroller on our two week trip to Europe when Mr. O was 18 months old, instead we brought a structured backpack carrier.

Checked Luggage vs Gate Check

After deciding which baby equipment to bring on our flight, we must then decide what to do with it once we get to the airport. Strollers and car seats can be either checked luggage or gate checked for free. Note: pack and plays do not fall under this category and it is expected you pay to check them like you would a suitcase.

Since Mr. O is three, he has his own seat on the plane so we keep his car seat to use on the plane. Miss H’s car seat gets checked right away since she is still a lap child.

Lately we’ve been checking our stroller at the ticket counter instead of at gate check. It can be helpful to have a stroller in the airport, if nothing else it is a way to help carry all of the stuff.

However, the stroller must go through TSA screening, which can be problematic if your stroller is too large to fit in the scanner. More than once we’ve had to take our double stroller apart (wheels and all) so it could fit. I am still amazed at how knowledgeable the TSA agents are at taking apart strollers. Now, we find it easier to just check it up front than deal with it in the security line.

No matter if you decide to check items right away or gate check them, make sure to use a travel bag. On our first flight with Mr. O we didn’t even know such bags existed and my husband had to have the gate attendant go back under the plane to find a piece of our car seat. Now we use a travel bag for both our car seats and strollers.

Airport Security

My son, Mr. O, may be a rockstar in the security line but I find it stressful. People are in a hurry and little kids inherently prolong the screening process. Over time, I’ve learned a few tricks that have helped us speed up the process.

Baby carriers and TSA screening

Technically, the TSA rules are that babies must be removed from the baby carrier and carried through the metal detector while the carrier gets scanned with the rest of your items.

However, I have found when wearing a soft structured carrier that most agents tell me to leave the carrier on. Typically, I will wear baby in the carrier through the metal detector and have my hands swiped on the other side.

Your experience will be largely dependent on how the TSA agent defines your baby carrier.

Freeze breastmilk when possible

Travel with frozen breastmilk when possible, it will help get through security faster since the screening requirements are different for frozen liquids. Also, I put the frozen milk in it’s own bin and tell the agents “this is frozen breastmilk” before it goes in the scanner. I have found giving them a heads up helps them screen my items faster because they aren’t trying to figure out what it is.

You are allowed to travel with liquid breastmilk or baby food pouches over 3 oz, but these liquids require additional screening. Take these items out of the bag and put them in a separate bin so it is obvious what needs screening, this will speed things up.

If you forget, it’s okay, but your whole bag will get pulled and the agents will search it looking for the offending items. More than once I have had to instruct an agent where to find the sippy cup full of water that I forgot about. It happens.

Know how to take apart the stroller

As I mentioned earlier, TSA expects that all your items will be screened by X-ray (see the TSA guidelines here), so some disassembly of your stroller may be required. Get familiar with how to take it apart and put it back together again. We bought a new stroller and it was a bit embarrassing when the TSA agent taught us how to take the wheels off.

On the Plane

Congratulations, you made it to the gate and now you are ready to board! Although it can be tempting to be the first people on the plane in order to get settled in, remember, the first person on the plane spends the most time there. Make sure your youngsters have time to run around and expend some energy before boarding.

If you are bringing a car seat on the plane, an agent may ask to see that it is rated for use on an aircraft before allowing you to take it on the plane. This information can be found in red lettering on the seat itself. Also, car seats cannot obstruct someone’s ability to exit the plane, so it needs to be placed next to the window or in the center of the middle row.

Look for the word AIRCRAFT

If you plan to wear your lap child during the flight, the flight attendants will ask that you remove your child from the baby carrier during takeoff and landing.

I always felt my baby was safer strapped to me but a flight attendant informed me otherwise. The premise is that you could be thrust forward into the seat in front of you during takeoff and landing. If you are wearing baby when this happens, your baby would hit the seat with the force of your body weight which could result in serious injury. Although this type of occurrence is very rare, it is the reason for the rule.

Once you are all settled in to your seat, it’s time to sit back and enjoy the adventure of flying with your children. Have a safe flight!

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